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Tenille Campbell, a Dene First Nations poet from English River First Nations, Alta., reads her work at the Thunder Bay Public Library.David Jackson/The Globe and Mail

John Pateman is the chief librarian of the Thunder Bay Public Library.

In his book Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall describes how he was transformed from a middle-class brown-skinned Jamaican into a working-class black West Indian when he immigrated to Britain in 1951. I underwent a similar transmutation, but in reverse, when I moved from the cathedral city of Lincoln to working-class Thunder Bay in 2012.

On first glance, I am white, with a British accent that gives my roots away. When I first arrived here, where Canada’s largest per capita Indigenous population lives, one of the first things I was told was that it didn’t matter what I said, because “people will hear your accent and assume that you are intelligent.”

That was a big adjustment to how I understood myself, and how others saw me. Growing up in Orpington, in status-sensitive Britain, my social position was determined by my class origins rather than my education, job title or income. And as a working-class Romany Gypsy – the most racially disadvantaged group in Britain – the nuances of my white skin and the specific south-London tones of my British accent give me away as a member of the lowest rung on the race and class hierarchies.

Romany Gypsies experience extremely high levels of deprivation, social exclusion and discrimination. We suffer from elevated levels of mortality, morbidity and long-term health conditions. We are forced to live on encampments located under highways or next to sewage works. Only 13 per cent of Gypsy children graduate from high school; these students also have a high rate of school exclusions and report extreme levels of bullying and racial abuse. Gypsy adults have the lowest employment rates and highest levels of economic inactivity; they are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

This gives me unique lenses through which to view Thunder Bay’s challenges around racism and race-based violence. I can use the white male privilege I’m viewed with in the city alongside my core understanding of what it means to be a member of an oppressed minority. I can generate some insight and much empathy for how class privilege affects oppressed communities.

That puts me in a unique place as an influencer of policy from the library – a place well-suited to steering the discussions about how to navigate the perfect storm that has engulfed Thunder Bay.

The Thunder Bay Public Library (TBPL) has transformed from a standalone traditional public library into a multipurpose, community-led and needs-based community hub, which is open and free to anyone who lives, works or studies in the city. TBPL provides democratic public space, which makes it uniquely suited to be a centre for reconciliation, relationship-building and decolonization. And of course, it’s where people have access to knowledge and stories, so other perspectives can be heard.

It’s an efficient system, too. A TBPL study found that, for every dollar invested, the economic impact and social return is $6.70.

But like so many of our social services, Ontario Library Services–North (OLSN), which provides support services to public libraries across Northern Ontario, including in Thunder Bay, has seen its budget slashed in half by provincial funding cuts. Half its staff have been laid off.

The impact will be most keenly felt in small, rural, remote and First Nations libraries, because those are the ones that depend on inter-library loans to supplement their limited collections; whose staff attend OLSN conferences to network and discuss best practices; which use the agency to maintain their websites.

In short, the hardscrabble communities that need these resources the most are now dealing with diminished and lower-quality services, exacerbated by Northern Ontario’s unique vastness.

Once again, my background informs what I think must happen now. In Britain, after the defeat of the miners, the steel workers and the print workers, public-sector workers did not form alliances with other service providers, users or local communities. And, as a result, budgets have been pared back to the bone in core health, education and social services. Hundreds of libraries have been closed and thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

The library service I managed in Britain has seen the size of its network reduced from 48 to 15 libraries, and the impact has been devastating in terms of crime, addiction, teenage pregnancy, obesity, health and education outcomes. We cannot let the same thing happen to northern services.

I know I am lucky to have my strange, almost alchemy-like privilege, so that I can look at the problems in Thunder Bay through a prism of lenses. But we don’t need that alchemy-like privilege to have more empathy for where each other is coming from, and to understand that we are stronger by standing together in solidarity with our shared humanity. And what better place to understand other people than in libraries?

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